Days of Future Past: Remembering the Cinerama Dome
You have probably seen the news by now that Pacific Theatres, the cinema chain that operates the famous Arclight Theaters, is closing up shop due to the financial strains caused by the pandemic. For now, that means that its most famous and most visible outlet, the historic Cinerama Dome, is shuttering. The shock and outrage caused by this announcement, and the close proximity of some singularly deep pockets belonging to film lovers, may help to save the dome. We hope so, but it seems like a good time to look back at the theater that was originally intended to serve as a pilot program that would change film exhibition for good.
To understand the impetus for the project in the first place, let’s look at its time period. In 1963 movie theaters were locked in an existential struggle with television. How could the big screen set itself apart from the small screen? 3D was one way, another way was to make the big screen a huge screen. That gave rise to the Cinemascope boom of the ’50s and, by 1952, to Cinerama, a process that used an enormous, curved screen that actually enveloped an audience in its picture, provided by three synchronized projectors. You could definitely never experience that at home.
Speaking of which, the very idea of home was changing too. People were moving farther away from city centers into suburbs, which were being built as fast as the lumber could be unloaded from trucks and the concrete for the streets poured. This is where the radical idea for the geodesic dome came in. The dome, first conceived by the visionary architect and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller, was cheap to produce and quick to assemble. The idea was that the Cinerama company could build dozens of these around the country with a reasonably low investment and put them where the people were, whether in the city centers or the suburbs. The unusual, futuristic design was also sure to be an attention grabber, always a commercial asset.
By the time the pilot Cinerama Dome was built in Hollywood, there were only eleven Cinerama films commercially available to show. This may give the reader an idea as to why the project was in hot water already even as it hosted the premiere of the twelfth, Stanley Kramer’s knockabout comedy IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD. Cinerama was extremely expensive to film, to print, to produce and even to ship to venues. Furthermore the unusual physical dimensions of the features made them difficult to convert for exhibition in non-Cinerama theaters and, you guessed it, for television, at a time when TV licensing was just becoming a major building block in film budgeting.
Cinerama did not peter out immediately, it had its run, peaking in 1965 with seven Cinerama productions being released. Only three of these were truly prestige productions however, and the rate of return was not sufficiently remunerative to continue at this pace. And so the great dream of a Dome in every city did not come true, though an unused aluminum prototype was built in Las Vegas where it stood until 1985.
In many ways that made the first Cinerama Dome in Hollywood a great monument to a future that never came to pass. As of now, the Dome will no longer offer film exhibition, but the future is as hard to predict today as it was in 1963, and there very well may be plans to keep the Dome extant in one form or another. We hope so.